This narrative was shattered in August when the Gladiators finally earned their first franchise title, besting the Chengdu Hunters in the Countdown Cup finals. This resulted from a stellar performance by flex support, Jin-seo "Shu" Kim, an MVP candidate who made a case for winning the award with one of the most clutch plays in the entire season, which involved Shu pulling off a now-iconic flank on Havana B.
Behind the efforts of the L.A. squad was David "Dpei" Pei, the only head coach that, amid continuous staff and roster changes every year throughout OWL, has maintained his position since the inaugural season back in 2018.
Ultimately, success was apparently inevitable at the City of Angels, especially given the stacked pool of talent. Among those players in the current 2021 roster were: OWL Season 1 champion, Kim "Birdring" Ji-hyeok; Overwatch World Cup winners, Indy "Space" Halpern and Grant "moth" Espe; DPS extraordinaire, Kevin "kevster" Persson; two potential Rookie of the Year candidates, Young-hun "MuZe" Kim and Min-seok "skewed" Kim; and flex DPS, Gia Huy "MirroR" Trá»‹nh, who's proven his versatility by assuming either rank or support roles, when required.
A weight off their shoulders, but hungry for more
In a conversation with GINX, Dpei revealed that having finally found success felt like a relief, and he hoped to use it as a foundation for the immediate challenge of the playoffs that lay ahead of him. "[It] feels really validating for me personally, but also for our team [and] it gives us a lot of confidence rolling into the playoffs," Dpei said.
"It's a good pressure to have [finding success], it definitely feels good to have won it, but pretty much right after you're thinking about playoffs. So the winds are ephemeral, to say the least," the L.A. Gladiators' head coach added.
Becoming a seasoned Gladiator
As a franchise, the Gladiators are known for their innovative strategies or for marching to the beat of their own drum, an approach that defined them early on in the Overwatch League. This mantra would give us legendary moments like The Great Bamboozle against London Spitfire or being the first team to ever record damage done with Symmetra, courtesy of Lane "Surefour" Roberts.
If you've followed the team since its inception, you may have noticed that Gladiators have shied away from playing outside the meta over the past couple of seasons, and there's a reason for it -- Dpei's evolution as a coach.
Dpei said: "At the beginning of my career, I was much more about these set strategies; like the King's Row stuff, having these specific counter comps -- that was great for those one-time things. But I've been trying to more broadly teach across the meta because that only helps that one fight. I can make a set plan but my imprint is only left on that one fight"
"What I really need to teach them is: how they should be thinking during the game, how they need to work with each other, what that means as a whole; and kind of enforcing that and bringing the best out of them. So that's more what I've been leaning into my last two years; is trying to teach them how to play the game, rather than me tell them 'do this specific strategy' like I did I think in season one and season two a lot more. So it's been a maturation I think of my coaching and my coaching style," Dpei added.
Continuing to explain his new coaching approach and philosophy, Dpei revealed that developing different compositions and adapting to meta shifts is still important while planning set strategies. He believes that this allows his players to embrace the chaos of Overwatch by developing their analytical abilities and has been one of his main goals throughout the year.
"I'm giving them the tools and letting them use the tools rather than me forcing them to use the tools; if that makes sense. [I am] trying to build their critical thinking skills, rather than critically think for them and tell them 'you do this in this situation.' We've been doing that more with player discussions and leading those player discussions. Sometimes we have to give this hard conclusion where we want but we've been trying to give more power to the players in terms of what they want to do inside the game: more broad strokes [and] broad principles," he said.
Dpei continued by saying: "Sometimes, obviously, we need to be very specific. I'll give them a plan for like Numbani A against this certain set defence. Like, we'll be really specific but in general, I've been trying to empower the players more for their critical thinking, since that's such a huge part of Overwatch: is them reading the game inside the game."
The perfect arena for the final showdown
With the 2021 playoffs right around the corner, Dpei believes that having no huge meta changes coming into the final stages of the season is a positive situation for everyone involved, as it allows teams to finally showcase what they've been building up towards all year.
"It's something I've been preaching to Blizzard for like the past four years. There's always been this giant meta shift right as the playoffs come on. It kind of ruins what the teams have worked on and the storylines. This season has been (in terms of game balance) really cool; really great game balance and it seems like you can play whatever you want, as long as you know how to play it. This is where you get that feeling of Overwatch that I think the devs wanted, which was [that] you can play your own style. It's how you play it and there's this little element of rock-paper-scissors when you're hard countered," Dpei mentioned.
For many analysts and fans alike, the 2021 playoffs are shaping up to be the most competitive ones we've seen to date, with squads like San Francisco Shock, Dallas Fuel, and Shanghai Dragons at the top of almost the entire community pick'em predictions.
Despite improvements, Dpei is aware that their competition is fierce, with all eight squads capable of going the distance.
- Read more: 2021 Overwatch League Playoffs: All qualified teams, prize pool, pick’em predictions, and more
"You will be seeing this clash of styles from certain NA teams like Shock. You're gonna see probably an Atlanta use their bunker comps type of things. Chengdu will lean into Jinmu's Pharah, which I think is a really cool thing. They're playing that regardless of the meta, they're making their own meta," Dpei said.
"I've been a part of Overwatch for four years but this playoff is by far the most stacked. All eight of these teams, I think last year, would have done extremely well. They probably would have been in the final four or the final two," He added.
A real Gladiator fears no one
Entering the playoffs as the fourth seed meant that, while Gladiators got to skip the play-in phase, they didn't get the opportunity to pick their opponents for the first game of the final bracket. This ended being a revamped Philadelphia Fusion, with the inclusion of core members who missed the majority of the regular season due to visa issues.
This was a blessing in disguise for Dpei, who mentioned he was ready to choose them as their opponents regardless of what may happen. "I'm really happy. I took the approach of 'we don't have to choose and I don't really care which opponent we get.' No matter what, we have to beat the best team. So it doesn't matter who we got out of the remaining, we're going to just win and then move on to Shanghai and then we'll see what happens after that," he said.
Skewing things in their favour
Coming into the season, Moth rightfully stole a lot of the spotlight alongside Shu after people talked about Gladiators' stacked support line. Yet, as the season progressed, the relatively unknown Skewed quickly became the talk of the community.
Signed as a labelled flex support player from a mid-tier Korean Contenders team (OZ Division), Skewed quickly became known for his ability to pilot the Brig; a role usually main support players have to dwell on.
Allowing the Gladiators to field two flex supports at the same time gave the LA squad room to run backlines like Bap/Zen without switching players to fit in a Brig specialist, which had Dpei applauding Sam "Face" Merewether's scouting efforts.
"Face, one of the assistant coaches, did a really good job with scouting this year. We just felt like he fit the role that we wanted and we had a very clear idea of what we wanted from this third support player. We kind of innovated what we thought of this position. I think it paid out huge, he could have easily not paid out," Dpei said.
He followed this by saying: "I've always believed in this second flex support idea, like, that's why I've always had Ripa on the team on season two. I kind of just saw it as a forward-thinking thing but we kind of fleshed it out. Skewed has obviously paid out as far as like a diamond in the rough. At the end of the day, scouting is a bit of luck. It's a bit of a crapshoot. When you don't get the brand name players you take a bit of a risk, and it worked out."
Looking for a perfect finale
The 2021 playoffs will mark the end of an era for fans, pros, and everyone else involved with Overwatch. This follows as a result of the sequel being right around the corner, with Blizzard confirming that the 2022 season will be played in an early build of Overwatch 2, with a show match scheduled to happen during the upcoming grand finals.
For Dpei, the thought of Overwatch esports as we know it coming to an end is not something he cares about right now. He does, however, admit that it will probably be a turning point in his career.
"I think it'll hit me a little after because right now I'm not really focused on the future, so I'm not thinking too deeply about it. It's the only [esports title] in my career where I've been a professional coach, so it's kind of nostalgic a little bit, but right now it's not until the season's over. I will be sad if this is the last few games we get to play but I'm more about embracing the present. This is a good chance for us to win at all and that will be a much more worthwhile memory hopefully," Dpei concluded.
The Los Angeles Gladiators are scheduled to play the Philadelphia Fusion this 21st September. You can watch all the action on the official OWL YouTube Channel.
For more on all things Overwatch, check out our dedicated section filled with news, tournament results, and more.
Featured image courtesy of L.A. Gladiators.